European Product Certification: Between Marketing and Traditions

A study conducted by Slow Food reveals that the European quality product certification process lacks comprehensive evaluation, which has led to extremely diverse results and opened the door to the large industry players to market their food as quality products.

On September 20, a conference on product certification was organized at the Cheese festival in Bra, Italy, where European Union officials, representatives of European non-governmental organizations and Slow Food producers discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the  European system of geographic indications.

Geographic Indications at the Top on the new Commission’s Agenda

The new European Commission, which will start its five-year term in November, has put the European systems of geographic indications, known as Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) and Protected Geographical Indication (PGI), high on the agenda. Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has indicated that she wants to strengthen the system of geographic indications as they are  key to maintaining high food quality standards and preserving gastronomic and local food heritage.

“We need to strengthen protections and controls to continue streamlining the systems of geographic indications but one area that we want to look at in particular is the producer groups. We have already started a project which aims to develop so-called Geographic Indication Identity Cards. With an identity card, we hope to make the producer groups identifiable and product information better known so that it will be possible to better enforce the protection of product names,” said Branka Tome, Deputy Head of Unit on Geographical Indications of DG AGRI of the Commission.

The EU official emphasized that even though the system of geographic indication should preserve biodiversity, protect the countryside, and help farmers to stay in rural areas, it cannot be completely harmonized. The producers themselves should be at the forefront of deciding which products and which product specifications are to be preserved.

Meanwhile, Laurent Gomez, General Secretary of  AREPO (Association of European Regions for Products of Origin) noted that consumers take six seconds on average to make food choices. “Geographic indications can help make these decisions, but we have the responsibility to certify what is behind these labels.”

Wins and Losses of Geographic Indications

Small-scale farmers, who play a crucial role in preserving traditional and natural production, often lack the resources to benefit from the system of geographic indicators;  lengthy processes and high application costs are among the main reasons.

“International and local corporations often take advantage of the system of geographic indication for product marketing reasons and often bypass agroecological and other sustainability requirements for the sake of product quantity,” said Audrius Jokaubauskas, a Lithuanian cheese producer from the Slow Food Network, adding that in certain EU member states, including Lithuania, some large producers have “created stories about a tradition that never existed” to be able to get the PGI label.

Meanwhile, Jannie Vestergaard, an expert in small-scale food production, from Slow Food Copenhagen, explained that many producers in Nordic countries choose regional labels of origin and quality instead of opting for the EU system. However, she emphasized that positive examples of geographic indications exist. For instance, Lammefjordskartofler potatoes which are grown in fjords and are unique because of their thin skin have helped the potato producers to not only protect the tradition but the market too.

First Study on Cheese Production Quality Certifications 

The EU regulatory system of geographic indications was introduced over 20 years ago. It aims to protect and promote traditional local agricultural products with the highest cultural value. However, a recent study carried out by Slow Food and presented during the conference by Maria Teresa Barletta, demonstrated significant differences in product specifications which are needed to obtain PDO and PGI certification: while some producer groups present a very detailed story of their product, others have drastically oversimplified manufacturing techniques and may remain very unclear about the use of additives or processing aids. For instance, less than half of the cheese quality labels included in the study declare that only natural rennet may be used in the cheese production process, and 62% of the products do not provide information about additives. The broader study conducted by Slow Food which involves meat products, will be presented next year at the Slow Food’s largest flagship event, Terra Madre.

by Indre Anskaityte

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